Category Archives: god

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life – Sin

Sex, Death and The Meaning of Life is a new series of TV documentaries fronted by Richard Dawkins. I welcome this – partly because Dawkins is an excellent communicator. But also because it’s about time some of the current ideas in the science of morality and ethics were more widely known.

The first programme in the series, SIN,  was screened last Monday, on Channel 4 in the UK. I have embedded it below. It’s very informative.

There’s even a bit of humour – look out for the David Attenborough moment where Dawkins gives a description of evolution social customs around animal mating while watching humans performing on a dance floor

Sex, Death And The Meaning Of Life Episode 1.

There are at least two other programmes in the series. LIFE AFTER DEATH and MEANING OF LIFE.

See Death – part 2 of a series for the second episode.

See also:
Clear Story – Sex, death and the Meaning of Life
Channel 4 – SIN
Channel 4 – LIFE AFTER DEATH
Channel 4 – THE MEANING OF LIFE
British Atheist Richard Dawkins Explores Sin and Morality in New TV Series

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The paradoxes of theological gullibility

Dr Maarten Boudry

Maarten Boudry is a philosopher I will certainly read more of. His review of Alvin Plantinga‘s book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, get’s right to the point – and clearly. Boudry responds to Plantinga’s argument that scientific theories need no more justification than logical possibility:

“But if the bar for rational belief is lowered to mere logical possibility, and the demand for positive evidence dropped, then no holds are barred. Evolution (or gravity, plate tectonics, lightning, for that matter) could as well be directed by space aliens, Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster.”

My feelings exactly. Philosophers like Plantinga should be kept well away from science. “Remarkably,” as Boudry comments, Plantinga’s “entirely gratuitous suggestion has received the support of no less a philosophers than Elliot Sober.” Perhaps scientists have really got to work harder to get through to some philosophers just what the scientific process really is.

Boudry’s review is online at Where the Conflict Lies, Really: Are Science and Theism Best Friends?

I am impressed with Maaten Boudry’s clear thinking and clear writing. But, Jerry Coyne at Evolution is True reveals that Boudry can also write very unclearly and express ideas which are, to say the least, muddled (see A Sokal-style hoax by an anti-religious philosopher). But only as a joke.

Boudry wrote and submitted abstract on sophisticated theology to two theological conferences using an invented name (Robert A. Maundy) and institutional affiliation (College of the Holy Cross). Despite the abstract being a load of old rubbish it was quickly accepted at both conferences.

This brings to mind the Sokal Hoax in which Alan Sokal, a Physics professor at New York University  submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. His paper was ” liberally salted with nonsense, . .   sounded good and . . .  flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” It was a parody on post-modernism and despite being rubbish was published.

Boudry’s paper is:

The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence.
Robert A. Maundy,  College of the Holy Cross, Reno, Nevada

Jerry has reproduced the abstract in full – go to his blog to read it. It includes little gems like:

“By narrowly focusing on the disorderly state of present-being, or the “incoherence of a primordial multiplicity”, as John Haught put it, Darwinian materialists lose sense of the ultimate order unfolding in the not-yet-being. Contrary to what Dawkins asserts, if we reframe our sense of locatedness of existence within a the space of radical contingency of spiritual destiny, then absolute order reemerges as an ontological possibility.”

And finishes with:

“Creation is the condition of possibility of discourse which, in turn, evokes itself as presenting creation itself. Darwinian discourse is therefore just an emanation of the absolute discourse of dis-order, and not the other way around, as crude materialists such as Dawkins suggest.”

I think Jerry sums it up succinctly when he says:

“I defy you to understand what he’s saying, but of course it appeals to those who, steeped in Sophisticated Theology™, love a lot of big words that say nothing but somehow seem to criticize materialism while affirming the divine. It doesn’t hurt if you diss Dawkins a couple of times, either.

This shows once again the appeal of religious gibberish to the educated believer, and demonstrates that conference organizers either don’t read what they publish, or do read it and think that if it’s opaque then it must be profound.”

Yes, this little trick was probably relatively easy to perpetrate as less care would be taken with acceptance of conference papers than with publication of journal articles. Perhaps there is a challenge there – maybe some devious atheists should write some “Sophisticated Theology™” papers and submit them to the suitable journals.

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Finish the sentence . . .

I like this idea from Jerry Coyne (see OMG: Jesus was married!)

Here’s the problem. This old scrap of papyrus refers to Jesus – Unfortunately bits are missing and the conversation is cut off at an intriguing point.

Apparently it goes:

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

So here’s the question – what do you suggest comes after “wife?”

Jerry, having the one track mind of an evolutionary biologist, suggests:

“. . . is unable to bear children because, being haploid, I am unable to produce sperm.”

What do you reckon?

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Subjective morality – not what it seems?

Religious apologists claim morality is objective and moral truths or laws need a divine lawmaker. But, in my last post, Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers, I suggested if a divine lawmaker imposed the laws of nature on reality that would make them subjective – arising out of the whims, desires and fancies of the lawmaker and not out of objectively existing matter/energy and its interconnections.

Similarly, the “objective mortality’ or “divine command ethics” of the religious apologist really describes a subjective morality. A morality based on the whims and fancies of the divine lawmaker and open to the charge of relativism. (This interpretation is consistent with differing moral codes of different religions. Their lack of consistency has all the hallmarks of arbitrary whims and fancies).

Religious “objective morality” is caught in a dilemma here – the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is what their god commands good because their god commands it (a subjective morality open to relativism)? Or is what their god commands good for some other reason (providing for some sort of objectivity, and the possibility that we humans may also discover that objective basis for our morality).

So, while religious apologists love to talk about “objective morality” this is a misnomer. Their morality is actually subjective – and usually relativist. On the other hand, some (but not all) non-religious commenters describe their morality as “subjective.” Are there also problems with the way they use that term?

First off, I think some people may use the term simply as a reaction to claims of “objective morality” by the religious. Mind you I think some non-religious also describe their morality as objective (eg. Sam Harris) because they do not wish to concede objectivity to the religious alone.

Subjective confusion

But I want to consider the discussion of subjective morality by Zach Weinersmith (see Pankration Ethics) and Sean Carroll (Morality and Basketball). Weiner thinks subjective moral “rules are conceived of and agreed upon by humans, but have no existence outside of humans. That is, if humans perished, the rules would go with them.” In contrast he quotes Matt Dillahunty, a US atheist who who defines objective ethics, “nicely by saying (paraphrased) “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” That is, the ethics are outside of humans. Slavery is wrong. Even if every human being thought it was right, it’d be wrong. When pretty much everyone thought it was acceptable practice, it was wrong.”

We can come back to the example of slavery and changes in human attitudes later. But meanwhile I really think Weiner’s use of “subjective” is confused. Dictionary meanings are usually clear that “subjective” refers to “existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective ).” Sure, for humans to conceive ideas and formulate rules is subjective. But that normal humans usually have two legs, two arms, one mouth, two eyes, one heart etc., is are objective facts. If humans perished those objective facts would no longer be relevant, except as a description of an extinct species. But that does not make them subjective.

Weiner does seem to allow for at least a bit of objectivity in ethics. This may prevent his subjective morality being a bit more than just human whim and fancy. He says “we observe that when we kill each other, it generally makes us sad. So, in general, ethics systems favor not murdering.” Being sad, like with other emotions and feelings, requires more than just exercising the mind.

He ruins that a bit by going on to say: “If we lived in some sort of video game universe where killing didn’t make you sad (and in fact got you coins or points or something), I suspect we wouldn’t have the rule.” I find such thought experiments very naive. Humans don’t live in video games – no real creatures do.

However, by vaguely considering emotions as a factor in moral beliefs he has moved beyond the subjective mind, he has opened the door, a little,  to the influence of objective facts on the human mind via the human body and its interaction with its environment. Perhaps there is, at least to some extent, an objective basis for these apparent subjective decisions. Decisions which seem to arise simply from whim and fancy of the individual.

“Subjective” but not arbitrary

Sean Carroll also rejects “objective morality:”

“I don’t believe in objective morality; the universe just is, and there’s nothing “out there” that judges human behaviors to be good or bad. These categories of good and bad are things we human beings invent. And in that sense, in my version of the analogy, the rules of morality are exactly like the rules of basketball!”

“The point is this: the rules of basketball were not handed down by God, nor are they inherent in the structure of the universe. They were invented by James Naismith and others, and fine-tuned over time. We could invent different rules, and we wouldn’t be making a “mistake” in the sense we’re making a mistake if we think the universe was created 6,000 years ago. We’d just be choosing to play a different game.”

But he adds:

“The crucial part, however, is that the rules of basketball are not arbitrary, either. They are subjective in the sense that we can make them be whatever we want, but they are non-arbitrary in the sense that some rules “work better” than others. That’s pretty obvious when you hear basketball fans arguing about the proper distance for the three-point line, or the niceties of hand-checking or goaltending, or when a crossover dribble is ruled to be traveling. People don’t merely shrug their shoulders and say “eh, it doesn’t matter, the rules are whatever, as long as they are fairly enforced.” The rules do matter, even though the choice of what they are is ultimately in our hands.”

While the rules of baseball are human intentions, therefore apparently subjective, they are also influenced by some objective facts about reality – the playing field, the size and power of the individual players, etc. Again, my point. At least to some extent Carroll’s description is acknowledging some sort of objective basis for the rules of basketball and human ethics.

He puts it more clearly here:

“The rules of morality are ultimately human constructs. But they’re not arbitrary constructs: we invent them to serve certain purposes. People are not blank slates; they have desires, preferences, aspirations. We mostly want to be nice to each other, be happy, live fairly, and other aspects of folk morality. The rules of morality we invent are attempts to systematize and extend these simple goals into a rigorous framework that can cover as many circumstances as possible in an unambiguous way.”

Morality may not be “inherent in the structure of the universe” but it may be inherent in the nature of a social species like ours.

Objective basis for human morality

Both Weiner and Carroll  have agreed a role for human desires, feelings, emotions, etc., in human ethics. They are acknowledging that morality is more than about rules. Here they are supported by most scientists currently investigating human morality. They see a key role for emotions and feelings – to some extent rediscovering what Hume outlined 350 years ago. Many don’t even consider the question of moral rules or laws. They are interested in what actually motivates and drives humans on moral issues. And this turns out to be largely, and in most situations, unconscious emotional reactions and not intellectual consideration of each situation.

We can go further away from the subjective mind. Emotions and feelings are the body’s mechanism for motivating and initiating action or reaction. Feelings of pain, cold, warmth or hunger motivate us to move or otherwise react. And these are just feelings we are conscious of. Most of the work done in regulating the body, its homeostasis, occurs below the level of conscious awareness.

Emotions and feelings are probably the modern expression of more mechanical mechanisms used by simpler organisms. In the early stages of evolution simple cells may have reacted to heat and food gradients detected by simple sensors. This early ability to react to the environment is an expression of biological value. Organisms which evolved sensors and reaction mechanisms were the ones that survived to reproduce. They had a value system or mechanism to aid survival. An objectively based value system.

Evolution of species with neuronal structures, brains, and eventually consciousness and self-awareness, has enabled a clearer biological value system. Rather than simple mechanical reaction our body produces complex reactions to stimuli – often involving mental and physical feelings or emotions. Here we have an objective basis for human moral behaviour.

Moral questions are differentiated from many non-moral ones because they evoke strong moral reactions. Emotions and feelings. In fact the feelings of “right” and “wrong” are very strong feelings. Perhaps this is why some people see them as objective – they must be because they are so strong.

Morality in the “auto” mode

This objectively based values system and the emotional feelings and emotions it causes do not need conscious deliberation. Just as well as the system has evolved to enable rapid reaction to situations we face. Not only in reacting to danger – but in reacting to other members of our species. We are social by nature and this has meant evolution of systems to enable efficient and rapid reaction to social situations. We have the ability to communicate, assess other individuals, judge them, etc., all without conscious deliberation. Effectively this is like using your camera in the “auto” mode. You can go ahead and take photos without thinking – the camera does your thinking for you. And much quicker than you could do it.

Joshua Greene compared the human brain to a camera during a discussion titled “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality.” The trouble, argued Greene, is that the ingrained automatic responses that guide some judgments may not be as effective in addressing modern complex moral problems, such as global warming.

Of course we can also use our camera in the “manual” mode – and we can do moral “arithmetic,” consider situations, deliberate over moral rules and laws etc. consciously. In a “manual mode”.


I will discuss the role of conscious moral deliberation in the next post. Together with Matt Dillahunty’s assertion “If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now.” See Drifting Moral Values

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Objective or subjective laws and lawgivers

Zach Weinersmith and Sean Carroll recently blogged about subjective and objective morality (see Pankration Ethics and Morality and Basketball). Their ideas are interesting but I found their comparison of physical laws and moral laws with the rules of basketball and pankration confusing – both games are rather foreign to me. So I am taking the opportunity to clarify my own ideas about physical laws and moral laws. And whether such laws are objective or subjective.

Today I’ll just present my understanding of laws of nature, and whether they need a “divine lawmaker” or arise automatically from reality itself. I’ll get on to “moral laws” later in the week.

Laws of nature and moral law

Weinersmith thinks that the religious apologist argument that moral laws require a god “makes at least a certain amount of sense” – “it only makes sense to posit objective laws if there is a lawgiver.” I’ll come back to that. However, he thinks “laws of nature” are different.  “I’m willing to believe that a law like “like charge repels like” could be a random member of any number of functional sets of simple physical laws, and therefore might not require a lawgiver.”

On the other hand, most religious apologists argue that the “laws of physics,” etc., need a lawmaker, their god, just as much as moral laws. After all, they argue, the fact that nature behaves in a rational, logical way is evidence of a god who has somehow injected that order into the natural world.

I think there is a conceptual problem arising from at least partly confusing a completely human-made law – a rule which society decides and enforces, with a physical law or law of nature – some relationship of matter and energy which humanity has recognised through observation. Sure, the “laws of nature” are also human constructs but they do describe observations. They attempt to describe objective reality. In no way do humans instruct nature how to behave. Nor does any other being have to lay down such instruction to natural bodies and phenomena – they arise from the very nature of those bodies and phenomena.

The laws of nature are descriptive – not prescriptive.  They arise autonomously out of the way nature is, not the way we, or a divine “lawmaker” want it to be. We call them “laws” or “theories” because we have enough confidence of their general applicability that we can use them – even in new situations and places. Sometimes during their use we find they are faulty or incomplete. They might not describe reality properly or completely in new situations. Then we change the law or theory – usually by amendment or improvement. Sometimes, but rarely, by abandonment and formulation of a new theory.

In contrast, philosophers of religion see their god as a lawgiver who prescribes physical laws. But modern science has made a lot of progress since abandoning that medieval idea. In fact, the scientific revolution and subsequent progress required ignoring such constraints which had no evidential support. Today we make no such assumption. Effectively we see the rational nature of reality arising simply from the objective existence of matter and it’s ability to interact. (Here I am using the word “matter” in its most abstract philosophical sense – not in a naive mechanical sense of substance). The interactions of matter/energy inevitably produces order of some sort or another. When we recognise elements of that order we often describe them in a scientific theory or physical “law.” These are human constructs reflecting the current level of knowledge, which is inevitably provisional. Open to improvement and refinement as we learn more.

Realism, non-realism and instrumentalism.

Most working scientist are  probably philosophical realists. They imagine or assume that there is an objective reality that we can comprehend imperfectly. So they see the theories and laws they formulate as imperfect reflections of that reality. All theories and laws are inevitably incomplete – although over time we can improve them.

But we don’t have to rely on a realist world-view. We can simply adopt and use theories and laws because they work. In effect we can be philosophical instrumentalists. While some philosophers seem to automatically classify instrumentalism as a form of non-realism I think this is too restrictive. Realists or not we all use the laws, theories and formulae because they work. Sometimes we have no picture of the underlying reality, or conflicting pictures (think quantum mechanics and its interpretations).

As a philosophical realist I still consider I am being an instrumentalist in using the formulae, theory and laws – because I recognise them as imperfect reflections of reality that still work in most situations. Think about it – we are probably all instrumentalists in much of what we do. Why does a student attend lectures and study hard? Because they wish to get a qualification and eventually a job. In the process they may develop an appreciation of how the world is according to their subject. But many students are probably not really concerned about that reality

Confusing objective and subjective

Talk of objective laws or objective truths relating to our scientific or moral knowledge can be very confusing. After all, can we describe our physical laws of nature as objective when they have actually been formulated by humans. Granted, they reflect objectively existing reality. But only imperfectly. That reality has been filtered through our perceptual and mental (and possibly social) mechanics to produce the law or theory.

Perhaps it might be more exact to describe our scientific laws of nature as “objectively based” (in recognition of their incompleteness, imperfection and provisional nature). The laws and theories don’t exist independently of our consciousness (and culture). It is the matter/energy and their interconnections which have objective existence. Of course the objective laws and theories we have formulated are based on, derived from, objective reality but do contain elements of subjectivity (influences of our culture, etc). Science works hard to reduce such elements of subjectivity from its theories and laws.

I think we need to understand what we really mean when we describe the scientific laws and theories of nature as objective.

On the other had – what about the situation favoured by philosophers of religion who insist on a “divine lawmaker” which imposes its (his, her) laws on nature. Laws which are prescriptive and not descriptive, as they are meant to be a dictation to  inert matter and energy on how they should behave. Surely description of such prescriptive laws as objective is completely wrong. Rather than arising out of objective reality they are imposed on reality by some sort of intelligence. From the perspective of that intelligence these laws must be subjective – derived from its own whims and fancies. From our perspective they should also be seen as subjective, although we have played no role in those whims and fancies.

Physical relativism or “miracles”

The “scientific laws” of the philosopher of relgion, who see them as products of a divine lawmaker, must be completely subjective. In fact, even though we are talking of scientific physical laws and not moral laws, let’s bring in the bogey man of relativism. Given that in their scenario the physical laws can be at the mercy, the whims and fancies, of their divine lawmaker they must see these scientific laws a relative as well as subjective. Aren’t they actually being relativist when they claim that their “miracles” are real? That they are caused by something “supernatural” – suspension of the laws of nature. Their god, in her wisdom, has demanded that these laws of nature are suspended or changed for a time. Isn’t that relativism?

While the subjective understanding of laws of nature enable such “miracles,” scientific understanding of laws of nature having an objective basis enables a non-relativist understanding. “Miracles” and “supernatural” phenomena which seem to defy the laws of nature simply show our imperfect understanding of reality. If the observations are valid they give an opportunity to improve our theories, to develop a better understanding of reality.

Mind you, these days most claims of “miracles” and “supernatural” phenomena seem to derive more from credibility, falsehoods and poor observation than from any problems with the laws of nature.

In my next post I will discuss the nature of moral laws – see Subjective morality – not what it seems?

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Science – the greatest story ever told

Book Review: A Crisis of Faith – Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity by Phil Torres

Price:
Kindle Edition$5.99
Paperback: $19.95
File Size: 498 KB
Print Length: 174 pages
Publisher: Dangerous Little Books (July 18, 2012)
ASIN: B008N06VRK

The last chapter in this book is titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told?” And the rest of the book lays the groundwork for that story. It outlines the scientific approach, based on evidence and reason. Validated against reality.

As a child Phil Torres “was often told that the Bible is not merely a good or even a great story, but that it’s the greatest story ever told.”  As an adult his education lead him to conclude that science’s story “is simply better than the Bible’s.”

So that last chapter is “science’s story of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going.” The question mark is there because it is the author’s suggestion and his version of the story. Different writers may present different details, but the story itself certainly is great.

From evangelical to atheist

Phil Torres was raised in an evangelical household. He says:

“I was born and raised in an evangelical household. For years as a child, I slept crowded to one side of the bed to leave room for Jesus to sleep next to me. You could say that I took the Bible seriously; I was a true born-again believer. I think my departure from religion was inevitable (although not always desired). The more questions I asked about the intellectual foundations of Christianity, the less trustworthy its doctrines and dogmas seemed; the more I queried religious authorities about how they knew what they claimed to know, the more foolish they looked.”

In this book Torres carefully explains why he abandoned those “beliefs – both terrifying and wonderful – that I once held so dear to my heart and soul.” He does so very clearly. His language is economical and mostly accessible. While there are some inevitable technical words used in his discussion of philosophy they are kept to a minimum. The chapters are short – usually expressed as a question. For example: “What is Evidence?,” What is Evolution?,”What is Science?” and “Is Religion Good for People and Society?” And at about 180 pages plus notes, the book itself is relatively short – especially for this subject.

All this makes the book ideal for the younger person, or the person relatively new to the subject. For someone who wants a clear and accurate overview of the arguments, and not a detailed discussion of intricate problems in theology or philosophy.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, there are a couple of chapters on robots and cognitive enhancement which probably represent particular interests of the author, rather than presenting any essential arguments for science and atheism. Inevitably they are also more speculative but make up only a small part of the book. I guess we can allow an author such foibles – particularly as he has done such a good job of presenting the essential material.

Singles – a new genre?

One effect of the increasing presence of digital books in the market has been the arrival of a new genre – the short but complete book providing an introductory overview to its subject. Amazon markets these as “Singles” and some publishers are encouraging authors, especially new authors, into this format.  I am sure that the short, clear overview presentation of “singles,” and their generally lower price, appeals to many readers. And I think it is probably one of the most attractive ways of introducing readers to unfamiliar subjects.

I see A Crisis of Faith belonging to this “singles” genre. Its introductory nature, the clear and economical writing and its relative shortness will appeal to the younger reader and to those looking for a clearly written overview and not a detailed exposition of abstract debates.

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So scientism = non-theism?

I have concluded that anyone making accusations of “scientism” is just being dishonest. The term is usually used inappropriately, as a straw man, and in an attempt to claim “other ways of knowing” which are preferable to science. (But in a cowardly way, by attempting to discredit the science and not providing support for this “other way”).

But this is really stretching the strawmannery of “scientism.” It’s part of a BioLogos infographic portraying “America’s View on Evolution and Creationism.” It blatantly presents “scientism” as the only alternative to creationist ideas (theistic evolution, intelligent design and creationism)  (See the original inforgraphic at Infographic: America’s View on Evolution and Creationism in Christianity Today or click here for full graphic).) You get the message – if your beliefs don’t rely on the magical thinking of “other ways of knowing” you are guilty of “scientism” – which is a bad thing.

Modern science relies on evidence and reason. It tests and validates its ideas and theories against reality. There is plenty of room for speculation but it’s very much reality driven. So far no scientific theories incorporate gods, angels, leprechauns or fairies. But that is not to say they are excluded – just that so far there is no evidence or need for such entities. If, and when, the evidence arrives we will happily include such ideas. (Just don’t go holding your breath).

But according to this infographic modern science is guilty of “scientism.”

Well, if that’s how you want to define “scientism” I am happy to be declared guilty. But you can’t use that as a term of derision.

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Their mission – values or advancement of religion?

Colouring in for Jesus at a secular public school

The organisations providing religious instruction in public schools have become quite defensive in their reaction the comments from concerned parents in the media. Simon Greening, current Churches Education Commission Chief Executive claims their purpose is not missionary. They don’t wish to convert children to Christianity, just teach them values. Their aim is to “educate not evangelise.”

Problem is this current story conflicts with their earlier stories, and with the recorded aims of their organisation. Recently one of their newsletters described schools as an “under-utilised mission field”:

“Churches by and large have not woken up to the fact that this is a mission field on our doorstep. The children are right there and we don’t have to supply buildings, seating, lighting or heating, . .”

And they also encouraged Christian followers to join school boards so they could have “more influence” on holding religious study in class.

Tax-free status

Their current claims also look very disingenuous when you peruse their registration as a charity to get tax exemption. (Yes, we are subsidising their activities*). The Churches Education Commission Trust Board describes its charitable purpose, or the main sector under which they registered, as “religious activities” – that is the advancement of religion. Its main activity is providing “religious services / activities,” and its main beneficiaries are “Children / young people.”

They amplify their declared purpose in the rules provided for registration:

“The Commission’s Charitable Purpose is to advance education in New Zealand and to advance the Christian faith in New Zealand. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, the Commission will seek to achieve its Charitable Purpose by:
(a)     stimulating, servicing, supporting and co-ordinating the efforts of member churches and related organisations engaged in Christian and general education in New Zealand;
(b)      promoting and undertaking Christian religious education programmes in New Zealand;
(c)      by generally providing and assisting with the provision of Christian religious education in New Zealand schools and the wider community;
(d)     developing and supporting chaplaincy in New Zealand schools;
(e)     encouraging people to be involved as informed Christians in education as professionals, as parents, or as other citizens.”

I don’t think there is any doubt about it. Their main purpose is “Christian religious education” and advancement of “the Christian faith in New Zealand.”

They don’t include advancement of human values in any of their documents. Clearly they have just taken opportunist advantage of the inclusion of values in the secular curriculum of New Zealand’s public schools to advance their own religious agenda.

They really are treating these secular public schools as a “mission field.”

Should we be allowing people who are this disrespecting of the truth, and covert with their intentions, teach values to our children?


*Actually this organisation also gets other public money. Their last financial returns shows they received four grants totally $12,880 from Internal Affairs Community Organisation Grants Scheme for their work in the Auckland region. They must have been “pulling the wool” to get those grants because they are not meant to fund “Projects seeking to promote commercial, political or religious objectives.”

See also:
Human values are secular

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Gnu bashing once again

The latest Gallup poll on American’s beliefs about creationism and evolution has predictably raised some comments among bloggers. As expected, there have not been any big changes – most still support either creationism (46%) or a god-guided form of evolution (32%). Although it is heartening that there is a long-term trend of increasing acceptance of normal evolutionary science (no god-guidance) – see below.

Among the commenting bloggers, one stands out – Robert Wright, writing for the Atlantic (see Creationists vs. Evolutionists). Because he is raising that old myth – Richard Dawkins is responsible for the strength of creationist belief in the US!! He even raise this old myth to a status of “theory”, but then retreats to a hypothesis.” Come on Robert – a bit more humility is in order – even hypothesis need some sort of supporting evidence, and the above graph is not providing any.

How the hell does he support the idea that “biologists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact” which has lead to the current situation. Where’s the sudden jump when Richard publishedThe God Delusion inb 2006 or PZ started blogging (2002).

Have a look a blog posts by Jerry Coyne (Robert Wright blames creationism on atheists) and PZ (My vast powers transcend space and time!) ridiculing this little “hypothesis of Wright’s. I will just take this issue a little further to cover a similar myth – that these horrible “new atheists” (gnus), and Richard Dawkins in particular, are responsible for the lack of support and respect for science in the US. I mentioned this myth in my review of Ecklund’s book  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think  (see Are scientists hostile to religion?)

Ecklund had referred to statistics on public attitudes towards science to support her mythical thesis that prominent scientists were causing people to turn away from science because they criticised relgion! But again, the statistics just didn’t support her claim. The plot below shows there has been no effect of  “new atheists”  activity (starting in 2004/2006) on the attitude of the public toward scientists.

%age of US public considering professions of “very great prestige.”

In fact, the data shows that there had been a downturn in respect for religious professions after 2001. Was that due to the “new atheists?” Are PZ’s blog (2002) or Sam Harris’s first book (2004) responsible for the dip in 2002 – 2004?

Or is this just a sign that the public was turning away from religion because of its involvement in the New York terror attacks of 2001? Or maybe a comment made by many people may just be  relevant. We had just got fed up with the hypocritical morality (think of all the choir boys) and interference of religionists? Perhaps even reacting to the religious interference in the teaching of science – even the practice of science?

Oh well, you can make you own interpretation of the statistics to fit your own prejudices.

Robert Wright does raise an issue which corresponds to one blip in the first graph. He says:

” Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion. “

But perhaps ID is to blame?

Again, I say, Wright’s propensity for Dawkins’ bashing is confusing him. He can’t see the alternative explanations of that blip (if it is even real). What about the effect of propaganda by the intelligent design (ID) protagonists, who are very hostile to theistic evolution (usually mean god as the guider). You just have to watch bits of the videos of the ID  conference on theistic evolution held at Biola University in October 2010 (see Videos from an ID conference at Biola University,  Biola God and evolution conference now on YouTube and Seven videos from the Biola University conference on God and evolution).

They hate theistic evolution and really dug the knife into Francis Collins. They make it clear that they won’t tolerate any bit of this ideas that you can accept evolution and still believe in a god. They will just not compromise. (Although even then, dear old Casey Luskin manages to really transfer the blame to the gnus because he claims theistic evolution cannot stop the war of the gnus on god – he’s a funny guy.)

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Do atheists need religion?

I was in no hurry to read this book – Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. It got such bad reviews. And I really wasn’t impressed by Alain de Botton’s contribution to public debate – on TV and in the media. However, an atheist friend recommended the book and, although I don’t think she had finished reading it, she was impressed with the book’s arguments. Or at least the problems the author identified for atheists living in a secular society.

So, out of a sense of responsibility I purchased and read it.

My conclusion – a waste of money and time!

I don’t intend this to be a review of the book. For that I recommend reading Martin S Pribble’s thoughtful review (Religion For Atheists). As an aside, I followed Martin’s reading of this book via his Twitter comments. First time I have come across a Twitter book review! I think it sort of works – at least when the reader gets emotional about what he or she is reading.

Sufficient to say that de Botton sets up straw men – an idealised, perfect religion (mostly Christianity) and a deficient, sterile, secular society. His only objection to religion appears to be their supernatural stories. So his answer to the worlds’ problems is to ditch supernaturalism but adopt the remaining institutions, buildings, funding structures, social relationships, moral messages, music and art of religion (particularly Christianity). As is! Artificially.

My atheist friend often comments on the need in our secular society to develop institutions which provide for the social needs of people. Their desire for community and charity. So I can see why she was, at least initially, attracted to this book. It’s just that I can’t see how de Botton’s utopia (religion with all its trappings except its gods) provides this, or is even possible.

Personally I agree that modern society needs to provide more in the way of institutions, ceremony and even buildings which appeal to our desire for community and significance. But that is not unique to modern society – it has always been the case – especially as the old institutions often did not fulfil these promises, or were even quite evil.

The point is that the most appropriate ceremonies, institutions and culture for these purposes are the ones that are built by the existing society, not artificially transplanted into it. And we are building such institutions, ceremonies, etc., in our modern, pluralist, secular society.

Religion needs secularism – and can learn from it

Why should we artificially transplant something from a religion (after removing its supernatural content) when we can do better? Consider modern ceremonies like weddings and funerals in this country. They have become a lot more secular – even where they are performed in a Church. We seem to have welcomed with open arms the secular concept of remembering and celebrating the life of a deceased person in our funerals. Friends and family give their stories and feelings. New Zealand funerals today are far more satisfying than those in the old days which simply had the religious purpose of sending the person of into the “afterlife.”

The church has noticed and adopted many of the features of secular funerals and other ceremonies. Incorporated them into their own ceremonies.

There are many other examples. The point is that – yes, we do need more and better institutions and ceremonies which contribute to our human need for community and friendship. We do need more buildings, art and ethical commentary appealing to those needs. It’s a matter of more of what we are doing well, not artificially transplanting from old and moribund institutions and ideologies. And its a matter of creating these new institutions and culture in a way that is inclusive – not the exclusiveness “them vs us” of the religious approaches.

So, my recommendation is that you should give this book a miss, unless you feel a responsibility to read it like I did. At least I will now be able to discuss the book and my reactions intelligently when I next see my atheist friend.

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